Hand to God: A New American Play

Hand to God

All I want to do is tell you everything about this play, but I won’t. I’m actually barely going to review it. I don’t want to spoil anything about this new show. Well, not so new; Hand to God has had a long journey to Broadway. First it ran at Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST) in 2011 and then last year Off-Broadway at MCC Theater. I remember hearing about it both times but never made the effort to see it. Now it’s made the leap to Broadway, and I encourage you to make ALL of the efforts.

I’ll tell you a few things to whet your appetite. Hand to God takes place in the small town of Cypress, Texas. A teacher there is trying to help the kids connect to Jesus and religion through puppetry. Then we meet the soft-spoken Jason, one of the students, whose hand puppet Tyrone may or may not be possessed by the Devil. Yup.

It’s a first-rate cast: Geneva Carr, Marc Kudisch, Michael Oberholtzer, Sarah Stiles, and the mind-boggling Steven Boyer as Jason (and Tyrone). I hope he wins all the Tonys. The set is spot-on; the script fresh and laugh-out-loud hilarious. It’s a cross (ha) between The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q, but it’s not a musical. A word to the easily offended: like in Mormon, there is some outrageous humor. It can be crude, sexual, and full of cursing. But man oh man, is it funny. You won’t believe some of the stuff you’re seeing and hearing. You may just blush in your seat.

This new Broadway play will make you laugh. It’ll make you think. It might make you squirm a little bit. It’ll definitely make you appreciate good theatre. Just trust me – you’ll enjoy it. Hand to God.

Hand to God
Written by Robert Askins, Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Booth Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Steven Boyer


Fiasco Theater’s Into the Woods

Into the Woods

Talk about the opposite end of the spectrum from this year’s blockbuster movie “Into the Woods.” The film, with its starry cast, lush sets, and special effects, may leave you thinking that this is the production value required of such an epic piece. But what you can witness at the Roundabout Theatre Company right now makes a strong argument for simplicity. By returning to its core – cutting the expensive costumes and even a full orchestra – we see these characters, raw and available, for all their faults, dreams, and wishes.

This is Into the Woods stripped bare. Fiasco Theater has gone back to basics with a much beloved show, throwing away the many interpretations we’ve seen over the years and starting from scratch. What do these characters want? What are they really saying/singing? The company takes the book scene by scene, lyric by lyric, and re-approaches them as if it were new material. And the hard work shows (highlights here). As someone who knows ITW very well, I heard lines in new ways, saw things I’d never noticed before, and to top it off, didn’t find myself missing the old ways. With a minimal set and only a few instruments, this small ensemble creates an entire world for us to behold, and like a fairy tale, many things are left up to the imagination. Take all the prop stand-ins: the hen is a feather duster, the cow a man (an absolute stroke of genius), the horses toy sticks, Rapunzel’s hair a yellow yarn hat, and so forth. Most of the accompaniment relies on Musical Director Matt Castle on piano, but the cast also doubles as the pit, stepping in to play cello, xylophone, bassoon. A few also play multiple roles: Rapunzel is Little Red, Jack’s Mother is Cinderella’s Stepmother, etc.

The orchestrations are unique and beautiful. In an odd way, losing the full orchestra highlighted the music even more. Who knew I’d been craving Sondheim music played only on guitar? The staging is also full of surprises. You never know what’s going to be transformed next. The set is stunning, the stage basically the inside of a piano. Up the proscenium sides are keys, along the wings are the insides of actual pianos, and the back wall is filled with strings that turn into the woods (no pun intended) themselves.

The cast is not that strong vocally (except for a few stand-outs), but it’s actually a testament to the innovation behind the production itself that this doesn’t take away from the show. Of course I missed having a certain power behind a few voices, but they make up for it. There is heart behind each and every performance. Nothing feels glib or mocked; it’s genuine and full of love for the story.

[SPOILER ALERT in this paragraph] This production also serves as a defense of what I wrote about in my movie review. Rapunzel’s death is so, so, so key to the plot, not just for the Witch’s arc, but the arc of the show in general. When that scene is done correctly, it changes the air in the room. Her death, and Jack’s Mother’s, sit in the space, the weight heavy on us, as the two actresses leave those costume pieces behind and move back into roles that live on. These deaths drive the characters, they drive the remainder of the second act, and they drive the message of the show.

It’s likely you’re not interested in seeing a show you’ve already seen or one that you can go see for $15 at a movie theatre (or on DVD soon enough), but I assure you, despite being an old favorite, this Into the Woods is brand new.

Fiasco Theater’s Into the Woods
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by James Lapine, Co-Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld
Laura Pels Theatre, Closing April 12th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: The cast of Into the Woods


Honeymoon in Vegas

Honeymoon in Vegas

If you’re into outrageous musical comedies, then Honeymoon in Vegas is the show for you. If not? I’d honeymoon elsewhere.

I can’t remember the last time I was at such a loss for what to say about a show. I honestly don’t know if you should run toward or away from Honeymoon in Vegas. It’s one of the more absurdist musical comedies I’ve ever seen. It is one huge compilation of random, campy moments, and yet all of that happens amidst a very clear (albeit insane) storyline (check out the clips here).

I suppose if you’ve seen the 1992 film then you’re likely better prepared for the plot than Matt and I were. The movie stars Nicolas Cage, Sarah Jessica Parker, and James Caan, and from what I’ve read of the synopsis, the musical seems to stay pretty loyal. But I mean, what?? This plot! Although, Matt did point out that it was similar to how he felt watching On the Town, which also has a relatively absurd play-by-play. So you gotta be prepared to just sit back for a wild and crazy ride. That’s kind of all you can do with a show like this. You can’t sit there with your critical hat on, or try to find the logic within the madness, or have a life-changing experience as it realigns your outlook on life. Nope. Instead, tap your foot, laugh with it (and at it at times), and sit there with the goofiest smile on your face. Because when you have Vegas showgirls, a dead mother’s curse, a song called Friki-Friki, Tony Danza tap dancing, and skydiving Elvises, what else can you do?

So the plot. A guy named Jack Singer loves his girlfriend Betsy (as he makes very clear in the opening number “I Love Betsy”), but he’s afraid to pop the question. Why? Because his mother’s dying wish (ahem, curse) was that he never get married. Every time he comes close, something goes terribly wrong. But when Betsy finally puts her foot down, they fly to Vegas to tie the knot. There we meet an older gentleman, conman Tommy Korman, who tricks clueless tourists into rigged poker games and walks out with thousands of dollars. He spots Betsy at the pool and falls immediately in love because she’s a dead ringer for his dead wife. He draws Jack into a game of the aforementioned poker, and when Jack finds himself out $10,000, Tommy says they can call it even if he can have one weekend with Jack’s girlfriend. Then they all go to Hawaii.

And that’s just Act 1.

I haven’t even mentioned the Garden of Disappointed Mothers in Act 2. Can we talk about this for a second? I don’t believe this scene is in the movie, but let me paint this picture for you now. It’s one of the few heart-to-heart moments in the show as we find ourselves surrounded by a bunch of women dressed as trees. Fog is pouring off the stage so that the first three rows can barely even see. I look to my left and see Matt crying in his lap he’s laughing so hard as we notice an old man in the front row stand up in the middle of the scene to attempt to see over the fog and then give up altogether and abandon his seat. It’s a ballad between mother and son, and you’ve got the amazingly talented Nancy Opel stuck in a tiki tree costume. The juxtaposition of these things has to be intentional, but I think we were the only ones laughing, sooo your guess is as good as mine.

Rob McClure, Tony nominee for the short-lived Chaplin, is great and well cast as nebbish Jack. Betsy is played by the charming and funny Brynn O’Malley. And as the sly con artist, Mr. Tony Danza holds his own, and boy, are folks excited to see him. Opel as Jack’s mother is sadly underused, not to mention Matthew Salvidar as Tommy’s sidekick. What a waste of his talent! I wonder if he had a song that was cut somewhere along the line.

I do, though, want to say, “Good on you, Jason Robert Brown.” First, for writing an Overture and Entr’acte (what happened to those, friends?) and highlighting the fabulous orchestra. But also, for writing this fun, jazzy, over-the-top music immediately following last season’s The Bridges of Madison County for its lush, romantic, Tony-winning score. It’s hard to believe they’re written by the same composer.

Honeymoon in Vegas starts off so strong. It’s campy and knows it. But when the characters head to Vegas, I found myself less on board. It was like a game of tug-of-war; I kept giving up, and then the most insane thing would happen, and I’d find myself smiling. And then I’d get fed up all over again. I try to avoid quoting other critics, but I think Ben Brantley hits it on the head in his (note: incredibly positive) review from the Papermill Playhouse run: “It’s a swinging hymn to laid-back outrageousness.”

And as my pal Matt put it, “I had fun!! Do I think it’s a good musical?…No.”

Honeymoon in Vegas
Book by Andrew Bergman, Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, and Directed by Gary Griffin
Nederlander Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Tony Danza and Rob McClure and the Cast of Honeymoon in Vegas


Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult

Tristan & Yseult

You can always count on Kneehigh Theatre for a whimsical treat for the soul.

When I first heard St. Ann’s was presenting the theatre company Kneehigh’s production of Tristan & Yseult, I jumped at the opportunity to go. Plus I got to see it with Shannon, one of my favorite people, who was visiting from Chicago last week (to launch Brontosaurus Haircut Productions!). Kneehigh’s style is right up our alley so we were eager to drink in the performance. I’m sorry to say that the run ended on Sunday night, so unfortunately I can’t recommend that you go see it (slash I’ll keep this brief). But here’s the trailer to give you a taste.

One of the reasons I’m drawn to Kneehigh is their seamless threading of storytelling with dance, music, and physicality. It’s consistently innovative, exciting, and unexpected. I got to see Brief Encounter at Roundabout Theatre Company in 2010, and while I don’t recall specifics (except the swinging on chandeliers), I definitely remember how it made me feel. I remember being awed, thrilled, and challenged by the acrobatics, ideas, and designs. It was simply beautiful (here’s the clip reel).

Their newest production is the story of Tristan and Yseult, your classic case of star-crossed lovers. We are greeted by a group of self-declared “Lovespotters,” who also introduce themselves as the unloved in this world. They are all dressed in uniform track jackets, hoods up, carrying around notepads and binoculars as they search for signs of love (this ensemble also doubles as the characters of the main story). I loved the unloved. They were like the minions in “Despicable Me” – working in unison, saying random things, singing and stomping around, and called names like Steve and Kenneth. They’ve also been known to croon sappy love songs and modern pop songs with the kick-ass band at the Club of the Unloved.

Even though I can’t recommend this particular play, I can tell you to keep your eye out for Kneehigh shows. We went on a journey of love, heartbreak, song, and dance as these characters sailed on ships, battled, and flew in the air. The storytelling is quirky and light until you realize just how heavy-hearted things can be.

Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult
Written by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy, Adapted and Directed by Emma Rice
St. Ann’s Warehouse, Closed December 14, 2014
Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich
Pictured: Dominic Marsh and Hannah Vassallo


Side Show

Side Show

The musical about conjoined twins brings double the thrills and double the heartbreak.

As I’ve tuned into the word of mouth and critical response this season, I’ve noticed that there are two camps of thought regarding the revival of Side Show. The buzz was nothing but positive early on, it got a great Times review, and many loved it. Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, I’ve talked to people who couldn’t stand it – from the updated book to the direction of the entire piece. Whether or not this divisive response is a sign of good theatre is a conversation for another day. Instead, I’m here to tell you I’m in the first camp. I liked it! Quite a bit (watch a sneak peek here).

Side Show is based on real-life conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, and their lives in the side show and vaudeville worlds of the 1930s. It had a brief Broadway run in 1997 starring Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner (watch them sing on Rosie O’Donnell’s old show here). The current revival is a revised version which started out at La Jolla Playhouse and then had a successful run at the Kennedy Center last summer. Now, I never saw the original, but I’m relatively familiar with the cast recording. I couldn’t sing the whole thing through from memory, but I recognize most of the tunes. All that to say, I’m not loyal to the original as I know some are. A friend of mine was very unhappy with all of the changes and found herself missing what it once was. About 60% or so has been revised: new songs, new scenes, the works.

The book is not without its flaws. The love stories get a little sloppy, but for some reason, it didn’t bother me. Things get melodramatic at times, which has never been a preference of mine, but it rides the edge nicely enough and never fully collapses into that style (like The Last Ship). A major flashback has been added to Act 1, filling in the girls’ backstory and how they ended up in a side show in Texas as the rightful property of the ringmaster. If there was one section that didn’t grab me as much as the rest, it was this scene. I understand the significance of including it, but the way it was told didn’t grab me. Harry Houdini stops by for a bit, and the action comes to a halt.

The two love interests, Terry and Buddy, who rescue the girls from the side show and make them vaudeville stars, kind of blend together. Basically, they’re underwritten. I suppose you could argue that it’s because they’re not the focus – we’re here for the twins and the twins alone. But come to think of it, the way the male romantic leads are written is similar to how many female roles are written in the canon. Not much to them, no real defining characteristics, there only to serve the purpose of the main (male) characters (Cosette, anyone?).

Flaws aside, the freaks are awesome in this. We begin with the side show and the charged opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks.” In the original, the choice was made to have everyone look “normal.” Kind of like in Violet – no make-up is used to display Violet’s terrible facial scar. It’s left up to the imagination and drives home the point of “they’re just like everyone else.” In the revival, there is nothing left to the imagination. The costumes and make-up are fantastic, and I think the message still comes through.

But let’s get to back to Daisy and Violet. Emily Padgett and Erin Davie are the heart of this musical. These two actresses are so in sync with each other that when the sisters are at odds, it’s all the more effective and challenging to watch them struggle (hear them talk about the experience of sharing a hip here). The Act One Finale, “Who Will Love Me As I Am,” is worth the price of admission in my book. Their voices together – oof, such power in their sound. Chills down my spine. The same goes for the Act 2 Finale, “I Will Never Leave You.” Both songs are show stoppers, combined with beautiful voices that lock in together perfectly.

Freak shows speaks to the inner part of us that wants to see people who look different or grotesque. I think it’s for the same reason drivers slow down on the highway to look at an accident. Ultimately, Side Show is a heart-breaking story about being different and longing for acceptance. Everyone can relate to feeling like a freak and wanting to be loved. It’s not a mistake when the spotlights on stage turn to shine on us for just a moment during the reprise of that taunting opening number. So come on, folks. Come look at the freaks.

Side Show
Book and Lyrics by Bill Russell, Music by Henry Krieger, Additional Book Material and Directed by Bill Condon
St. James Theatre, Closing January 4, 2015
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Emily Padgett and Erin Davie